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Bruce Sundlun’s colorful relationship with the press

July 22, 2011

As made clear by the many tributes to former Governor Bruce Sundlun, who died yesterday at age 91, Sundlun was a larger-than-life character who injected his forceful persona into just about every aspect of his life. His dealings with the media were no exception.

Larry Berman, now the spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox, was editor of the Call of Woonsocket for part of Sundlun’s tenure as governor from 1991 to 1995. Berman recalls frequently being on the receiving end of Sundlun’s journalistic critiques, receiving home phones calls from the governor on nights and weekends:””He would call — ‘Berman you’re full of [expletive], you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”  

On another occasion, during an autumn parade in Woonsocket, Sundlun stepped out of the parade line to upbraid Berman as the editor’s family looked on.

These kind of stories are legion — and it’s telling that Berman recalls them quite fondly.

Ted Nesi got some related thoughts about Sundlun from former ProJo political columnist M. Charles Bakst:

During his governorship, my title at The Journal was Government Affairs Editor. I wrote a Sunday column and oversaw the State House Bureau. Sundlun regularly peppered me with letters and phone calls complaining about something I wrote, or the reporters wrote, or we didn’t cover – whatever. On the other hand, he liked to schmooze, could be quick with a compliment, and, always, for all the decades I knew him, even until recently, was a terrific raconteur.

Bakst has also spoken of how Sundlun put journalists “in the penalty box” — freezing them out for a period of time before accepting them back into his good graces.

Sundlun was a fomer media executive, a guy who once ran the Outlet Company, which owned more than a dozen TV and radio stations. As I reported in 2006, Sundlun tried three years earlier to buy the Providence Journal:

In 2003, former Governor Bruce Sundlun wrote a letter to Robert Decherd, the CEO of the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, expressing his interest in restoring local ownership of the Providence Journal. While Sundlun cited “no complaints about the paper,” “it is obvious that the newspaper management has been cutting expenses,” he observed, ultimately concluding, “My reaction as a Rhode Islander is that the state would be better off if [the ProJo] was owned by a representative group of Rhode Islanders.”

The effort went nowhere — Decherd “wrote me back a very curt letter,” Sundlun told me, “saying they had no interest in selling.”

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